Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/07/2013

Today’s gospel is most often understood as a classic mission text with Jesus’ instructions to the seventy who were to go out ahead of him and then the report of their triumphant return. In the various commentaries I have, most of them have words that say something to the effect of “this text has great implications for the life and ministry of our own communities of faith,” that statement based in part on the verse that says “the harvest is plentiful.” 

At which point I want to ask, “Is it now?  Is the harvest plentiful?”  I know all the numbers, the increasing percentage of unchurched Americans said to be growing by a million a year, the fact that the n-o-n-e-s nones, those claiming no religious affiliation, are the largest growing religious group in the country, the decline in membership in mainline denominations like the ELCA especially among young people and young is getting older all the time, things like that.  Some researchers predict that religion will be driven towards extinction over the next century, a relic of the past.

But really, we don’t even need the official statistics; all I have to do is look out there on a Sunday morning.  All you have to do is look around, ask yourself how many people you know who don’t go to church, how many of your kids or other family members don’t go, or how many people are what I sometimes call phantom members; they’re there on paper, some even send an offering, but they’re never or seldom here.   In all of the categories I’ve mentioned though, most of them are nice people, good people doing good things, walking the walk as we say, many who I know would proudly claim that Bethany is their church and that Pastor Geier is a great guy.    

So then you might say to me, doesn’t that show that the harvest is plentiful?   Didn’t you just prove it with all that doom and gloom?  Didn’t you show that there are lots of people out there who are ripe for harvesting?  Here’s the problem; my perception is that the vast majority of those people are pretty happy in their unchurchedness.  There’s no societal pressure to be in church these days and so they’ve come to enjoy a leisurely Sunday morning.  I’ve read loads of articles about things we could or should be doing to attract these folks, to harvest them, but I’m pretty skeptical these days; I’m not sure there’s anything we can do that is all of a sudden going to get all these people coming to church.  So how’s that for a load of bad news on a holiday weekend?

If you were paying attention last week though, and if you were here I know you were, you remember that I talked about hope and how I never lose hope despite how grim things can sometimes seem to be.  Well, that’s true.  I do have hope; but I don’t have hope in any gimmick or program or plan that is going to turn things around and harvest all those people and take us back to the good old days when the pews were full.  What I have hope in is the gospel message of Jesus Christ preached and proclaimed and lived out.  That does have power to change lives and turn things around, but it’s going to take awhile; it’s going to take slow, steady persistence because what we’ve got here, to quote not the gospel of Luke but Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.  We have failed to communicate the Gospel of our Lord.

When I hear how Christianity is portrayed in the media and in the news, when I hear some of the stupid things said by people who claim to be Christians, how the message has been twisted and perverted, it’s no wonder that there are millions of people out there who want no part of it.   If that’s all Christianity was I wouldn’t want any part of it either. 

Just last week I read where researchers at the Barna group which is a group that does lots of surveys and such focused on the intersection of faith and culture, they asked people ages 16-29 (that’s the group or one of them anyway that we wish there were more of in church, right?) what words best describe Christianity and you know what the answer was?  Christianity is anti-gay.  90% of non Christian responders in that age group said that.  Now that’s a failure to communicate for you, a failure to communicate resulting in a stereotype that no gimmick or program is going to change very fast.  But you also ask yourself, how did we get from the love and compassion and acceptance and forgiveness of Jesus to that?  You can put up big screens and bring in drums and guitars but if the gospel message isn’t communicated more effectively, nothing changes.  You might get a few more people for awhile, you might even get lots of people, but lives aren’t going to be changed in any meaningful way.

I would like to think that here at Bethany Lutheran Church we do proclaim and live Jesus’ gospel message of love and acceptance and forgiveness; we do so imperfectly to be sure, but we try.  Actually I think that the vast majority of Christian churches and people who call themselves Christians do so as well; it’s not as if we’re like Elijah when he felt like he was the only prophet of the Lord left in Israel.  I also do believe that there is a plentiful harvest of people out there who are waiting for just such a message of good news.  The challenge is making it heard when some of the loudest “Christian” voices present an images of judgment and fear and when it’s those voices that the media runs to when, for example, the Supreme Court makes a decision and then, for those who don’t know the difference, that voice become the voice of Christianity and it’s hard to counter because the perception is that they are the real Christians and that’s how real Christians talk.

I’m venting here, and I know this isn’t the only reason people don’t come to church and I know that just pointing fingers at “them” isn’t very helpful.  As I said, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate; what we’ve got; but they don’t; the groups sending out a Christian message that seems to be largely about being against things are very good at communicating their message and that’s the problem we face.  One response has been to look at some of the churches that are attracting large numbers and adopt their methods of communication or try to; the philosophy is they must be doing things right, there are lots of people there.  To a certain point that might be OK, but you can’t adopt their methods at the expense of the gospel and I fear that’s what happens.  The message becomes  mostly law and law is not gospel.

Lutherans talk a lot about law and gospel but gospel, God’s grace and acceptance and forgiveness, always precedes law.  Just to be told all the things one must or should or ought to be doing or not doing runs into the inevitable why question.  With kids I still think there’s a place for “because I said so,” when they ask why, but in matters of faith I don’t think “because it’s in the Bible” is a very effective response anymore because it’s not that simple.  We know the Bible has been and is subject to interpretation.  There are timeless truths to be sure, but there are many other things that have been understood in new ways over the years because the Bible is a living word not a dead one so it’s always subject to another look.

Jesus summed up the law as love God and love your neighbor which basically is a turn away from a me first, egocentric approach to life.  That kind of love though, can’t simply be commanded; it requires a transformation in ourselves that we can’t enable, we can’t will it to happen.  It’s a human impossibility but with God all things are possible and in part that transformation starts with hearing the gospel, it doesn’t start with law. 

Even for those who are open to viewing Christianity as being about something other than judgment and being against things, there is still a pretty common perception that it’s about a rather rigid belief system.  If you don’t accept all the creeds and doctrines without question you don’t belong, that kind of thing.  But that’s not gospel either.  There is an element of mystery about gospel.  It will always have something to do with compassion, justice, acceptance, forgiveness, peace, hope, things like that, but as Luther did in his time, we continue to engage the mystery and try to articulate what it means here and now. 

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.  The gospel is what needs to be communicated, the gospel of Jesus Christ and the identity he gives us as children of a God whose default mode is to forgive us and give us another chance; that’s what we have to offer.  Whatever else we do and however we might package it, the communication of that message is at the center of who we are and what we do as a church and it’s what can make the harvest plentiful.

I can get pretty worked up about this.  It does make me angry when I see how Christianity is portrayed and perceived by many because I say that’s not who we are, if only we could communicate the difference more effectively.  It can be frustrating, but…we’ll get there; it won’t happen fast, but Jesus and his followers communicated a message that opened people to new possibilities for life that they couldn’t otherwise have imagined.  They called it gospel and it’s still the message the world is waiting for.  It will take time and we’ll never get all those who are happily unchurched, but the gospel rightly proclaimed does and will make a difference; the harvest is plentiful.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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